When Blaine Lindsey soared across the stage in the title role of "Peter Pan" on opening night of the Chattanooga Theatre Centre's 2023-24 season, cast members from two prior productions of the musical were in the audience to cheer him on and welcome him into the Neverland network.
That spirit of community and one big family is what many local actors credit as the foundation of the continuing success of the CTC. Friday's opening night raised the curtain on the 100th season of the community theater, launching its centennial celebration.
"The Chattanooga Theatre Centre (has been) the place you could go where there was a community; it felt like family. It was that camaraderie that kept me coming back; the friendships you develop. The audience was the icing on the cake," says Rhonda Catanzaro, who played Peter Pan in the 1995 production. She and Jim Kennedy (Captain Hook in the 1985 cast of the musical) were joined by other Neverland actors on opening night.
"I'm so glad we have had this performance outlet for Chattanooga and the audiences who have kept the theater going 100 years," she says.
This is just Lindsey's second performance at the CTC, but he is a veteran of several productions in West Tennessee theaters.
"That sense of family that I get from being in a theater company has always been the part that brings me back into an audition room time and time again," he says.
"Having a shared goal with people you would have never met otherwise brings people together in such a special way. And getting to share that with all the patrons of the theater is a magical experience," he explains.
— Spring 1923: Othneil Brown forms idea for nonprofit community theater
— December 1923: Chattanooga Little Theatre incorporated
— April 1924: First play, “Dear Me,” performed upstairs in War Memorial Theater
— October 1926: First show in new location, Fire Hall No. 4, on corner of East Eighth Street and Park Avenue
— November 1962: First show in new building on River Street
— 1971: Circle Theatre added to River Street building
— 1983: Youth Theatre established
— September 1996: $5 million expansion and renovation completed; name changed to Chattanooga Theatre Centre
— February 2019: CTC announces plans to perform August Wilson’s American Century Cycle of plays, a 10-year commitment
Source: Chattanooga Theatre Centre
PAST, PRESENT, FUTURE
When Othneil Brown shared his idea to form a nonprofit community theater with his banker, E.Y. Chapin, in 1923, neither could have imagined the impact the theater would have for decades to come.
By December of that year the theater had incorporated. In April 1924, the first show, "Dear Me," was presented upstairs in War Memorial Auditorium. The remainder of the season was performed in either Chattanooga High School or the Bijou Theater. Season subscriptions were $10.
It truly was a community theater, drawing actors from all walks of life: teachers, plumbers, bankers, lawyers, accountants, students, doctors, moms and dads. Walking the boards leveled the playing field between blue- and white-collar workers. Everyone worked as one to produce a quality production.
Even during the years of World War II, the theater continued to operate, presenting five or six shows a season, says Rodney Van Valkenburg, who has been executive director since August 2020.
Scott Dunlap, director of productions and an actor and director, repurposed the existing set for actors and devised a social-distancing seating format for the audience so that even COVID-19 only caused productions to halt for seven months.
For this reason, the CTC is the oldest continuously producing community theater in the Southeast, says Van Valkenburg.
Van Valkenburg joined what was then Chattanooga Little Theatre in 1983 as the first full-time director of the newly established Youth Theatre. He held that job until taking the position of director of programs in 1996. After leaving to work with ArtsBuild in 2001, he returned in 2020.
In total, he has directed 80 shows since 1983. The theater staff has grown from two paid employees to 11 full-time with four part-time in that time.
After being cast as Bert Healey in the 1984 production of "Annie," Van Valkenburg continued to act in innumerable shows through 2018's "Newsies."
A U.S. senator, an opera singer and an “NCIS” fan favorite are all among actors who walked the boards at Chattanooga Little Theatre or Chattanooga Theatre Centre before moving on to greater fame. Here are some of the most notable.
— Jim “Jay” Garner: Garner appeared in 16 shows at the Chattanooga Little Theatre between 1943 and 1963. The late actor changed his name to Jay Garner when he went on to Broadway to avoid confusion with the already famous actor James Garner.
Among Jay Garner’s many Broadway roles were the governor in “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox in “Red, White and Maddox,” and Ben Franklin in “1776.” His last Broadway role in 1994 was Horace Vandergelder opposite Carol Channing in “Hello, Dolly.”
— Dennis Haskins: After playing founding father Thomas Jefferson in “1776” at the Little Theatre, Haskins moved to California and became a household name in his role as principal of Bayside High School for four seasons on the sitcom “Saved by the Bell.” In 2000, he was named the Distinguished Alumnus of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
— Estes Kefauver: Before Kefauver was the Democratic senator from Tennessee, he practiced law for 12 years in Chattanooga. He also tried his hand at acting with a role in the murder mystery “The Donovan Affair” at the theater in the 1933-34 season.
— Steven Malone: The talented pianist made a name for himself on Broadway beginning as a rehearsal pianist and rising to associate music director and conductor for Broadway musicals “Newsies,” and “Anastasia.”
He served as children’s vocal conductor for NBC’s live telecast of “Peter Pan,” starring Allison Williams and “The Sound of Music” starring Carrie Underwood. Most recently he was associate music and vocal performance supervisor for “Schmigadoon!”
— Jim Nabors: Nabors was cast in “The Fireman’s Flame” at the Little Theatre during the 1957-58 season before moving to California to pursue acting. The late singer and actor has Andy Griffith to thank for his fame.
Nabors was discovered by Griffith while singing in a Santa Monica, California, nightclub. Griffith wanted to expand the cast of his popular TV comedy “The Andy Griffith Show.” He stated in interviews he thought Nabors would fit right in with his Southern accent.
Nabors debuted in the Christmas Eve episode in 1962. Two years later, he had his own spin-off, “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.,” which ran from 1964 to 1969. In 1991, Nabors got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Also in the cast of “The Fireman’s Flame” was Monte Jaffe, who went on to have an international operatic singing career.
— Muse Watson: Long before he ever called Leroy Jethro Gibbs “probie” on “NCIS,” Watson was entertaining audiences at the Little Theatre. Between 1981 and ‘86, he played Don Quixote in “Man of La Mancha,” the title role in “Hamlet,” Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” and Oberon in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
As Mike Franks on “NCIS,” he was friend and mentor to Mark Harmon’s Gibbs.
Horror-movie fans know he was killer Ben Willis in “I Know What You Did Last Summer.”
Sources: Chattanooga Theatre Centre, various internet sites
Last season, 28,000 people were entertained at the CTC, he says. That number is a strong marker of the theater's outreach, but Van Valkenburg says plans are already underway to grow audiences. Diversity and inclusion are the buzzwords.
The first step was the theater's commitment to present Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson's American Century Cycle of 10 plays. Those performances have introduced new Black actors to the CTC and brought first-timers to the audience.
With more plans for diversity of shows each season, Van Valkenburg says the theater is turning its attention to education programs.
"We've started a tour group of paid actors that will travel to day cares and preschools presenting interactive shows for ages 3 to 6."
The 25-minute performance can be booked by calling the theater's box office.
"We are looking into shows to serve senior citizens and shows for people with disabilities," he says.
One partnership being considered is with the Penguin Project. Penguin fills roles with children who have developmental disabilities, pairing them with children of the same age who don't have disabilities. They work in pairs for four months of rehearsals until the performance.
"Our goal is to do the best we can with what we have," says Van Valkenburg. "What hasn't changed in 100 years is our sense of community. We want people to come together to work on plays. That was true in 1923, and it's true today."
Local actors with longtime associations with the Chattanooga Theatre Centre recall some career highlights.
— Lindsay Fussell: As the CTC launches its 100th anniversary, another milestone is being marked as well: Fussell’s 50th year with the theater. Chances are anyone who ever danced across the theater’s stage learned their moves from Fussell. Since her debut as a dancer in “Annie Get Your Gun” in 1973 she has acted in 20 roles and choreographed 54 musicals.
“One of my favorite roles was that of the emcee in ‘Cabaret.’ Other dream roles that I’ve been fortunate enough to play at the Theatre Centre include Cassie in ‘A Chorus Line’ and Mrs. Robinson in ‘The Graduate.’
“There’s such a joy in getting to create a character and feeling that connection with the audience when it hits. But then again, I love creating a show from scratch, choreographically. I couldn’t be prouder when I’m seeing a cast perfect the steps I’ve given them when they are performing in front of a live audience.”
Speaking of creating from scratch, at one point, Fussell simultaneously directed and choreographed three musicals for CTC: “ Spamalot,” “9 to 5“ and “Miracle on 34th St.”
“I also co-directed/choreographed ‘Crazy for You‘ with the uber-talented Allan Ledford,” she adds.
— Rhonda Catanzaro: The actress was in the 1985 production of “Peter Pan” as Wendy and then played the title role in 1995. She learned on opening night not to immediately change out of Peter’s costume into street clothes. Having done just that, she opened the dressing room door to find parents and children waiting to meet Peter.
“They weren’t there to see Rhonda Catanzaro,” she says. “They believed in Peter.”
From then on she was ready for them, staying in costume.
“I blew fairy dust (glitter) on the children and told them it only worked if Tinkerbell was there,” she says. “I didn’t want them taking a flying leap off a building trying to fly.”
— Kitty Forbes: This audience favorite was in nine shows between 1968’s “Dark of the Moon” and “Southern Connections” in 2008.
One favorite role was Nellie Forbush in “South Pacific.”
“It was really fun because I got to sing and dance,” she says. “I wasn’t comfortable doing that myself, but as Nellie I could pretend to be someone else.
“Also, my husband was one of the sailors in the show. When he poured water on my hair during ‘I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair,’ he’d nearly drown me,” she laughingly recalls.
— Jim Kennedy: The actor had already built a reputation for memorable performances at Backstage Playhouse when Chattanooga Little Theatre director Al Gresham called and invited him to audition for “Same Time, Next Year” in 1979. That was the first of 10 roles he brought to life at the CTC through 2014’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Kennedy describes himself as “so lucky” to have played a variety of wonderful characters. Bonus perk: He says during the 1987 production of “Death of a Salesman,” he “courted fellow cast member and one-day bride-to-be, Barbara Johnson.”
Kennedy says “Playing Henry Higgins in ‘My Fair Lady’ opposite Janet Reeve was sheer joy. I played Salieri in ‘Amadeus,’ and that was artistically my most challenging but rewarding role. Fagin in ‘Oliver’ was a bucket-list role for me.”
In 1985, he played Capt. Hook opposite Arlene Strickland’s Peter Pan. He estimates he lost about 12 pounds during that run from dancing and carrying around a costume that weighed more than 40 pounds.
“It made me lose enough weight that (wardrobe director) Kay Jennings had to take in the pants,” he says.
— Rob Inman: This well-known actor has built a resume of “about 40” shows at the CTC, since his debut there in 1977 in “Barefoot in the Park.” His most recent was “August: Osage County” in 2022. That 40 doesn’t even include performances at Signal Mountain Playhouse, Oak Street Playhouse and other regional theaters.
He chooses two roles as favorites because he says they were fun to play: the vampire in “Dracula” and King Arthur in “Spamalot.” He also fondly remembers “August: Osage County” for its “wonderful” cast, and “Glass Menagerie,” because he twice played Tom Wingfield.
— Becki Jordan: Just one year shy of 50 years volunteering at the theater, Jordan has given more than half her life to the nonprofit.
Since making her debut in 1974’s “The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail,” she has performed in nearly 40 shows. That’s in addition to working on staff three years as volunteer coordinator, serving as an usher, working in the scene shop and selling concessions. She has served as house manager, run crews for shows and worked special events. If there’s a job to be done, Jordan can be counted on to fill it.
Her favorite role has more to do with a close-knit cast than acting, she says.
“My mom passed away while we were in rehearsals for ‘Rumors,’ in 2002. The cast was amazing in their concern for me. Coming back to the cast is a special memory and reinforced to me that theater is family.”
— Mike Lees: Since making his debut at the theater in 1976 playing the role of Richard Henry Lee in the musical, “1776,” Lees’ days at the theater provided him a place to “hone my skills both as an actor as well as musical director for well over 30 years.”
Among his favorite leading roles were Captain Big Jim Warrington in “Little Mary Sunshine,” Juan Peron in “Evita,” Daddy Warbucks in “Annie,” Julian Marsh in “42nd Street,” Tito Merrilli in “Lend Me a Tenor” and Archibald Craven in “The Secret Garden.”
The added experience of “working with several professional guest directors gave me an insight to a plethora of different acting and directing styles,” many of which Lees says he used throughout his teaching career and now as director of musical theater at Girls Preparatory School.
— Janet Reeve: After making her debut in 1971 in “Pirates of Penzance,” Reeve was hooked. The following year she resigned from a teaching position at Bright School in order to focus on her newfound passion. From then until fall 1976, when she left for New York to study at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, she worked at Cooley’s, the family clothing business, by day and rehearsed or performed in the evenings.
She performed in 14 shows, playing leading roles in eight. She picks Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady,” Maria in “Sound of Music” and Nellie Lovett in “Sweeney Todd” as her most memorable roles, all of which were performed after her seven years in New York City.
The actress is one of several members of the Reeve/Cooley/Hosemann clan to walk the boards at the theater.
Reeve and her cousin Jimmy Cooley performed together in “1776” and “Dearly Departed.” Her sister, Jane Hosemann, performed in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” Hosemann’s daughter, Brittany, sang in the girl’s chorus in “Evita” and Mike Hosemann was Scrooge in a production of “A Christmas Carol.”
“The Sound of Music” was a family affair when Reeve was cast as Maria, aunt Dolores Cooley as the Reverend Mother and niece Brittany was Gretl Von Trapp.
Five of the family were cast in “Sweeney Todd.” In Reeve’s last show at CTC, “Fiddler on the Roof,” the actress played Motel’s mother and her niece, Dr. Ellen Valadez, was Chava.
— LaFrederick Thirkill: Thirkill has been acting in CTC plays and musicals since his debut in “Dreamgirls” in 1989. But perhaps his most notable role in those 34 years is happening now. Thirkill is president of the theater’s board of directors, the first black president in its history.
He says his goal as president is “to not only see the CTC be a source of entertainment for the community but to ensure opportunities for as many who want to act or volunteer their time in other ways. Access and equity for all. It’s important for us to be a hub for community theater as well as a place to support the arts — whether that’s a dance or other program held on our stage — and welcome them into the theater.”
A solid step toward diversification and welcoming all races and cultures has been the theater’s commitment to presenting the August Wilson cycle of plays. He notes that although the theater had presented “Dreamgirls” and “The Wiz,” black casts were few and far between.
“So the goal is to increase the number of diverse plays so we attract (a broader range) of actors and audience members,” he says.
Email Susan Pierce at [email protected].